A lockdown that lasts over and a year and a half can leave a population spent and starving. The Philippines has the undisputed yet unfortunate reputation for the longest lockdown in the world, which began in March 2020. That has taken a devastating toll on many families around the country for whom the lack of food security persists as one of the great challenges throughout the pandemic.

A government survey revealed that early on in the pandemic, 62% of Filipino families experienced not having any food on the table. Not much has changed in the past year. The number of the unemployed is as high as 3.8 million, to whom government aid significantly decreased in 2021 compared to the previous year, despite it being inadequate in the first place. Local authorities disbursed P190.6 billion (US$3.7 billion) as state financial assistance, colloquially called ayuda, in 2020, but as the lockdown continues, there was just P26.1 billion (US$510 million) offered as of September 2021.

The situation has challenged activists to redirect some of their efforts towards filling empty stomachs, the most urgent and immediate issue in the Philippines, in addition to the everyday protesting, organizing, and campaigning.

Activists agree that no amount of cooking and food related campaigns can bring about the change that is needed in the Philippines. They persevere in action knowing they must serve the people. The News Lens spoke with two groups about their initiatives to fight the power and feed the needy.


Photo Credit: Geela Garcia

The Anti-Golden Rice Meal

Farmers support group Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (Artists united for the agrarian movement), or SAKA, has started Kitchen Kalasag (Shield) as a way to feed hungry families.

The initiative gathers volunteers to cook, sell, and deliver meals to folks living under lockdown in Metro Manila, featuring vegan dishes with ingredients from local farming communities in a bid to promote healthier diets at a time when all of us need it most. They also raise funds for local farmers.

In September, Kitchen Kalasag put together the “Anti-Golden Rice Meal,” a set of chickpea fritters, a side of carrots and green beans, served over turmeric and moringa rice pilaf.

The Philippine government approved in July the commercial propagation of the controversial genetically modified grain of Golden Rice, making the country the first to do so. The artificial strain is bright yellow and was developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to curb vitamin A deficiency.

But Golden Rice requires its own set of pesticides and herbicides that could make agricultural workers too reliant on these farming inputs.

Genevieve Inumerable, Kitchen Kalasag project head, told The News Lens, “Golden Rice is a sham. It promotes an over-dependence on pesticides more than anything else, which means it promotes farmers becoming dependent on the products of agro-chemical corporations. Its introduction into the agricultural sector is a blight on local, organic, and our hopes of sustainable farming.”

SAKA developed many dishes to purposefully counteract the misconceptions about Golden Rice. Their pilaf rice comes in a tasty yellow because of the turmeric it was cooked with. “The carrots and moringa we put in our meals are a better source of vitamin A than Golden Rice. You’d need to eat tons of the GMO abomination when you can get the same amount of nutrients from a single carrot,” Inumerable said. “The government should be supporting local agriculture and farming methods instead of promoting the market interests of giant corporations.”

Community Gardens and Kitchens

For many poor Filipinos, ayuda is the biggest concern during lockdown. The lack of access to basic needs and their dwindling economic capacity have made banding together as a community all the more important.

Urban poor groups like the Pinagkaisang Lakas ng Mamamayan (United Strength of the People), or PLM, have partnered with food security advocates like Slow Food Sari-Sari, a Quezon City based coalition under the Slow Food Movement international, who believe that developing community practices is a way to offset the hardship during the pandemic.

The two groups are setting up community gardens in several slum communities in Quezon City, including neighborhoods like Payatas and Bagong Silangan. They practice container gardening in various households or engage the residents in communal farming. In Payatas, the former is the case as it is situated in the middle of the metropolis. The gardens serve a practical purpose, cultivating easy to plant vegetables like tomatoes, moringa, and cabbage.


Photo Credit: Geela Garcia

A community garden in Quezon City, Philippines.

They have yet to harvest, but when they do, the idea is to pool them together for community kitchens. The kitchens encourage the locals to band together, cook their meals collectively then hand them out to anyone who needs them nearby. Right now, all of their kitchen activities are sourced from donation drives, but donations won’t last forever. The idea is to empower the community to feed itself.

Terence Lopez of the Slow Food emphasized how harnessing community practices is vital. “We need to be able to feed ourselves especially during these times. We are getting no help from the government and the longstanding neglect means that we are left to fend for each other.”

The emergence of gardens and kitchens highlights an important issue according to Lopez. People can be self-reliant without forgetting to hold the government accountable. He said that the current administration neglects spending on the actual needs of the people. For 2022, the regime of Rodrigo Duterte and his cohorts in Congress are working on passing a budget for greater military and infrastructure spending above all.

“We demand ayuda and we demand the government fulfill its responsibility of aiding the people. Gardens and kitchens help, but our efforts don’t mean the state can escape accountability and our ire. Gardens and kitchens, in a way, are exposing how inefficient the state has been. It should be a wake-up call,” Lopez clarified.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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